Cardinal Sarah’s Guide to the New Counter-Reformation

In 1577, St. John of the Cross was taken prisoner by a group of Carmelites from Toledo who were opposed to the reforms of the Order he was undertaking with St. Teresa of Ávila. For eight or nine months, he was held in a six-by-ten-foot cell. The ceiling was so low that John (not a tall man) could hardly stand up. His one tunic was constantly soaked with blood from the frequent scourgings. The food they gave him was so bad that he suspected his guards were trying to poison him; he would say an Act of Love with every bite to steel himself against calumny.

Yet it was here that he wrote the Spiritual Canticle and parts of his masterpiece, Dark Night of the Soul. He bore captivity and torture with such love, patience, and determination that the older Carmelites called him “the coward”. The younger monks—not yet poisoned by the decadence and factionalism of the 16th- century Church—wept at John’s courage in the face of suffering. “This is a saint,” they whispered among themselves.

The most moving story, in my opinion, comes near the end of his confinement. John’s spiritual daughter, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross—inexplicably known even to Catholics by her secular name, Edith Stein—recalls it in The Science of the Cross:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Prior Maldonado [the “Calced” leader] came to John’s prison cell accompanied by two religious. The prisoner was so weak that he could hardly move. Thinking his jailer had entered, he did not move [to stand] up. The prior poked him with his foot and asked why he did not stand up in his presence. As John begged pardon, saying he had not known who was there, Padre Maldonado asked, “What were you thinking about since you were so absorbed?” [St. John replied,] “I was thinking that tomorrow is the feast of Our Lady and that it would be a great consolation for me if I could say Mass.”

(It’s said that the Virgin appeared to him the next day and showed him how to pick the lock. Talk about a mother’s love!)

It has become common now to say that the Church faces her greatest crisis since the Protestant Reformation. We should remember that a very different priest—Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar—had a very different response to the corruption in the Church: he accused the Pope of being the Antichrist and attacked magisterial teaching, including the dogma of the Real Presence. He defied the bishops, incurred excommunication, and founded a brand-new church to propagate his teachings.

John knew there can be no authentic reform in the absence of obedience to one’s lawful superiors—even superiors as cruel and corrupt as Prior Maldonado. That’s why John is remembered as the greatest saint of the Counter-Reformation, and Luther as the most dangerous heretic in Christian history.

I thought of John as I read Robert Cardinal Sarah’s new book, The Day is Now Far Spent. It is dedicated to two very different pontiffs: Pope Benedict XVI (a “peerless architect of rebuilding the Church”) and Pope Francis (a “faithful and devoted son of Saint Ignatius”). Yet it is Sarah himself, I think, who lays out the finest blueprint we’re likely to see for ecclesial reform—or perhaps I should say counter-reform.

Today, the word “reform” drips with innuendo, just as it did in the time of St. John of the Cross. It signifies a desire to change the permanent teachings of the Church as a solution to institutional corruption. It uses a temporal crisis as an excuse to propagate spiritual errors. It uses moral confusion to camouflage innovation. It can also encourage disobedience in the name of theological purity: we shouldn’t forget that the original Protestants viewed themselves as conservatives.

Just because a man opposes the Maldonados in the Church it doesn’t make him a John of the Cross. He may very well be a Martin Luther.

I have no doubt that Cardinal Sarah, for one, is a John of the Cross. Like the Mystical Doctor, he takes seriously St. Paul’s warning to the Ephesians: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ultimately, the source of the present crisis—whether “present” means the 16th century or the 21st—isn’t new: it’s original sin.

Ultimately, then, the solution isn’t novel either: it’s the pursuit of greater holiness. As our Enemy is sin itself, the easiest sins to do battle against are those festering in our own souls. As St. Francis of Assisi put it, “the soldier of Christ must begin with victory over himself.”

The Day Is Now Far Spent is a manual for the new Counter-Reformation. As such, it’s as concerned with addressing the false solutions to the crisis as it is with the crisis itself—with refuting the Luthers as well as the Maldonados. His Eminence warns that,

No human effort, however talented or generous it may be, can transform a soul and give it the life of Christ. Only the grace and the Cross of Jesus can save and sanctify souls and make the Church grow. Multiplying human efforts, believing that methods and strategies have any efficacy in themselves, will always be a waste of time.

Cardinal Sarah isn’t recommending we ignore the crisis. On the contrary. “Let us not be afraid to say that the Church needs profound reform and that this happens through our conversion.” (Emphasis added.) “Go,” he commands; “repair by your faith, by your hope, and by your charity.”

“Wait a minute, Davis,” I hear some of you saying; “This doesn’t sit right with me. What about Bergoglio? What about Pachamama and the German bishops’ ‘synodal journey’? What about the Viganò report and the unanswered dubia? Are you saying we should ignore all of this and just say the rosary?”

Well, the rosary is certainly a good place to start—and a good place to end. It’ not a bad place to stop along the way either.

It is true that no crisis has ever been solved by mere inaction. But, once we’ve resolved to act, the question becomes, How do we act most effectively? Cardinal Sarah’s answer: prayer. His book is fundamentally about the efficacy of grace.

Those who follow the daily meditations of another Discalced Carmelite, Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen’s Divine Intimacy, may remember the reflection from two Wednesdays ago on apostolic prayer. As Fr. Gabriel reminds us,

We can never be certain at all that our prayers will be answered according to our expectation, for we do not know if what we ask is conformable to God’s will; but when it is a question of apostolic prayer which asks for grace and the salvation of souls, it is a very different matter. In fact, when we pray for the aims of the apostolate, we are fitting into the plan prearranged by God Himself from all eternity, that plan for the salvation of all men which God desires to put into action infinitely more than we do; therefore, we cannot doubt the efficacy of our prayer. Because of this effectiveness, apostolic prayer is one of the most powerful means of furthering the apostolate.

For “if God has willed the distribution of grace in the world to depend upon the prayers of men,” then we can render no better service to the Church than to set about diligently distributing these graces, teaching others how to do so, and encouraging them in their efforts.

By the same token, the Enemy would be most gratified if we came to value our own “methods and strategies” above Our Lord’s. Better yet, we could distract others. We could join the secular, anti-Catholic media in amplifying the corruption within the Church, thereby leading others to become scandalized. (Nearly 40 percent of U.S. Catholics have considered leaving the Church over clerical sex abuse.) We could cause our fellow Catholics to lose faith in our spiritual fathers. (“Those who make sensational announcements of change and rupture are false prophets,” Cardinal Sarah charges.)

Our Blessed Lord’s strategy for reform is quite simple: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Everything else is idle noise.

Of course, Cardinal Sarah isn’t suggesting we ignore the crisis in the Church. On the contrary, he writes: “Let us not be afraid to say that the Church needs profound reform and that this happens through our conversion.” Those last three words are crucial: through our conversion. “We do not reform the Church by division and hatred,” he warns; “We reform the Church when we start by changing ourselves!”

Where should our conversion lead us? To a deeper faith in Christ, as opposed to a prideful faith in our own schemes. What do we need to change in ourselves? Anything that separates us from Him. He attacks the spiritual and moral roots of the rot—roots that spread far wider than the Vatican and go further back than 2013.

At the heart of all modern corruption and decadence—both within and without the Church—is the problem of materialism. As Cardinal Sarah states rather movingly, “The supernatural is swallowed up in the desert of the natural.” This is why the real solution to the present crisis—namely, prayer and fasting—seems so quaint, perhaps even naïve. It’s as though we can’t tell the difference between an image of St. Michael armed for battle and one of Bouguereau’s putti.

The most obvious manifestation of this decadence, this pervasive materialism, is the smartphone. His Eminence asks us to consider how much time we spend “absorbed by the images, lights, [and] ghosts” it offers. He calls the ubiquitous screen “an eternal illusion, a little prison cell.” The cardinal warns that these devices

steal silence, destroy the richness of solitude, and trample on intimacy. It often happens that they snatch us away from our loving life with God to expose us to the periphery, to what is external to us in the midst of the world.

(By the way, that goes for tablets, computers, and televisions as well.)

Can we bring ourselves to get rid of our devices, deactivate our social media accounts, and dedicate those liberated hours to deepening our relationship with God? Can we accept that the Church will only grow bigger and stronger as we ourselves become smaller and meeker? Can we trust Christ enough to take Him up on His offer to cease carrying our burden and rest? Are we humble enough to admit that our burden is too heavy for us to carry, and to take up His easy yoke instead?

Martin Luther said No, and went on to appoint himself reformer of the Church. In his arrogance and disobedience, that one friar wounded our Holy Mother more grievously than all the Maldonados put together.

John of the Cross stood by the Church. He cleaned her wounds with the tears he wept over sins—most especially his own. He nourished her with his fasting. He strengthened her with his suffering. He kept her company in the dark night, even when Our Lord withdrew His sweet consolation. It was his patience, humility, and obedience—even towards Maldonado—that won the wicked prior’s monks to his cause.

“If you think that your priests and bishops are not saints,” Cardinal Sarah writes, “then be one for them.” Today, there’s only one Carmelite monastery in Toledo, and it’s Discalced.

There will be no shortage of Luthers in this generation. But, with The Day Is Now Spent, we know there’s at least one John of the Cross in our midst.


  • Michael Warren Davis

    Michael Warren Davis is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021). He previously served as editor of Crisis Magazine and U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald of London. His next book, After Christendom, will be published by Sophia Institute Press. Follow his Substack newsletter, The Common Man.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...